As part of the Capote Summer Readathon, Kirsty and I are reading the twelve short stories included in A Capote Reader. For July we have read the first six of these. They vary in length, style, and subject, and they are a joy to read. Which of these have or will you read?
I first read this some years ago, and luckily I had forgotten some of the details. It is very short, even for a short story, and the premise seems very simple but really when you spend more time with it you realise that it is not. The story opens with a description of Mrs Miller, a widow living alone with “no friends to speak of”.
Capote’s prose is calm and sparse, and seems to be just relaying facts whilst actually crafting an image of a life left unlived, of happiness left unfulfilled. Mrs Miller is alone in so many senses, though she seems content enough with her little life. Very quickly we have a very clear image of her current existence and the deep mundanity – and safety – of it.
She goes to the cinema one night, and a young girl, all alone, asks her to buy her a ticket. She introduces herself as Miriam, saying it as if Mrs Miller should already know, and Mrs Miller exclaims that that is her name too. After a stilted conversation Mrs Miller goes into the film, and then goes home. But Miriam soon appears at her door, demanding to be let in and asking for food. She arrives in the middle of the night and Mrs Miller is not only groggy with sleep but utterly confused as to why this child has come to her house (and how she got the address), alone and so late. Miriam is eventually persuaded to leave, but that doesn’t mean Mrs Miller won’t see her again… This is such a clever little story, and I’ve really enjoyed reading it and trying to work out what was going on and who Miriam was, and why she behaved as she did. Not one to read late at night!
My Side of the Matter
This is a funny little story. Our unnamed narrator tells us that an attempt has been made on his life and it’s only his word against theirs, and this story is, as the title suggests, his version of events. He is only sixteen and has recently married a girl named Marge after having known her for four days. Three months later they move in with her two aunts when they discover Margie is pregnant. One, Eunice, rules the roost, while the other, Olivia-Ann, is “a natural born half-wit and ought really to be kept in somebody’s attic.”
Eunice and Olivia-Ann take a strong dislike (putting it mildly) to our narrator the first time they see him and constantly insult him. Margie is pregnant and fretful, and does nothing to help her husband. The climax of the story comes when Eunice accuses him of stealing money from her and the situation becomes hysterical. Our narrator stays completely calm until the black maid joins in the argument, at which point he beats her over the head with an umbrella (the story is set in Alabama in 1945 – not that excuses it!). Eunice grabs her father’s Civil War sword and attacks him.
The story ends with our narrator having barricaded himself into the room, with the others knocking on the door intermittently and begging him to come out. “Oh, yes, they’ve started singing a song of a very different colour. But as for me – I give them a tune on the piano every now and then to let them know I’m cheerful.” It one of the oddest little stories I’ve ever read and I’m still not quite sure what to think of it.
Tree of Night
Another funny little story, but to me this one has much more depth and mystery than My Side of the Matter, which is relatively straightforward. Tree of Night takes place on a train – already we are trapped and claustrophobic, suspended between destinations and speeding towards the unknown, all at the same time. A young woman takes the only seat in a busy and litter-strewn carriage, next to a woman and her silent male companion. The young woman is polite and replies to questions, by the older woman seems intent on talking to her and is easily offended. She and her companion do not quite seem normal, the more we look at them, and we fear for the young woman’s safety. She tries to be free of them more than once, even going to stand outside by the railing, but she is compelled back to them.
Though nothing bad happens outright, there is a distinct air of unease and threat throughout this entire story, and the image of the ‘tree of night’ is very vivid and unsettling. It is not a literal tree but rather a feeling of something growing and spreading in the darkness, towering over you. There is also the fact that a tree is planted in the ground, ancient and immovable, something that little old you couldn’t destroy. It is not just in the night but of the night, a part of the darkness and something that does not belong in the light of day… I wondered if the young woman was still haunted by it after her train journey.
Jug of Silver
I think this story is deceptively simple. The basic idea is that when a competing drugstore opens across the street, Mr Marshall wants to draw customers in the small town back to his store, the Valhalla. So he comes up with a gimmick – a huge glass jug filled with coins. Customers must try to guess how much is in the jug, and if they are correct they win the money – and they have to buy something in order to add their guess to the list. And of course it works. The whole town comes out to try and guess the amount, spending money at the Valhalla all the while.
One customer is a boy called Appleseed, obviously very poor, who turns up with his sister Middy. They need money for their family, but also because Middy needs to get her teeth fixed if she is to fulfill her dream of being in the movies. Appleseed is strange character, small and badly dressed, badly spoken, but determined to find out how much is in the jug. He announces that he will simply count the coins, though of course he can only see the ones on the outside and no one believes he can do it. He travels three miles every day on foot (there and back) to sit in the shop and work out how much is in the jar. He doesn’t buy anything until the last day, when his brother has earned a bit of money and he can afford to officially make his guess. And do you think he was right? The whole crowd gather in the shop to find out the amount, all eager to win, and of course Appleseed is there. The story ends quite neatly, with Appleseed becoming a town legend. I think perhaps Capote is trying to make a point about faith and redemption, and in the end the story does have quite an uplifting tone. Which is rare for Capote’s short stories!
The Headless Hawk
After I read this story, I sat thinking about it for a while – and I think I get it. It is one of Capote’s most complex and surreal short stories, and centres around a man, Vincent, who forms a stilted relationship with a girl who will only identify herself as DJ. He sees her on the street and at the theatre, and she then comes to the gallery where he works to sell a painting she has made. She leaves before he can pay her, and he keeps the painting – which features the headless hawk of the title – for himself. They are obviously intrigued by each other and very quickly form a sexual relationship. She seems to have barely any possessions, or anywhere to live, and she stays with him for a while.
She doesn’t speak much, but when she does it is often about someone called Mr Destronelli. She says he killed her beloved music teacher, and that he is out to get her as well. Towards the end she explains that almost all the men she has known were him – whether she thinks this literally or not is unclear. She is clearly unbalanced in some way, and by the end you think she might really be crazy. But what about Vincent?
Shut a Final Door
Our protagonist this time is Walter, a young man who doesn’t seem to know what he wants. He gossips behind friends’ backs and doesn’t understand why they are upset, and even sleeps with the girlfriend of his best friend without thinking anything of it. All his relationships seem to fail, and to me he seems like a very selfish, quite heartless person – but he doesn’t necessarily know that about himself.
The frame of the story is Walter arriving at a hotel in New Orleans, having travelled from New York. We don’t really learn why he is there, only that he is afraid to leave the hotel in case he gets lost – “if he got lost, even a little, then he would be lost altogether” – and lies on the bed, tormented. He pores over his failed relationships and friendships, going over and over them, but not seeming to try to and work out what he did wrong. He is a man who has made himself suffer, but does not have the self-awareness to realise it. I have to say I didn’t enjoy this story that much, but I found it very interesting and wondered what prompted its writing.
I must say my favourite of these stories has to be Miriam – though they are all brilliant, there is something about that story that really sticks in my mind, and that I thought about long after reading. I’m eager to read more!
You can read Kirsty’s post about these stories here.
We will be posting about The Grass Harp tomorrow (31st July), and in August we will review more short stories, as well as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Summer Crossing, Capote’s early novel that was only discovered and published in 2005.